The New York Red Bulls haven't lost a regular season game at home since last June. Chivas USA's winless road streak stretches back to March 24th, 2013 (funnily enough, their fourth game of last season...). Easy enough to call this one, eh? Or not. Strange things happen when these teams get together.
Here's what we know and what we don't for RBNY's fourth match of MLS 2014.
What we know:
- Both teams carry the burden of history
This fixture has not been good to RBNY in recent years: the Red Bulls haven't beaten the Goats since June 5th, 2010, when head coach Mike Petke and reserve team manager John Wolyniec were both players. Since then, the teams have followed a grim pattern for RBNY: we either lose 3-2 (as happened May 2011 and August 2013), or draw 1-1 (as happened July 2011 and May 2012).
So the Goats have our number, despite the fact that they haven't been particularly good since the last time the Red Bulls were truly terrible: 2009, the last year Chivas made the playoffs and the season RBNY propped up the league with 21 points.
This has turned into a bellwether match for both clubs. "Oh, we dropped points to Chivas? We must be heading to the playoffs again," say New York fans. Meanwhile, the Goats use the annual donation from RBNY to keep themselves from being the absolute worst team in the league. Terrible as they have been, Chivas haven't had the lowest points total in the regular season since 2005 - their inaugural MLS season.
- Neither of these teams care about history
This marks the last year Chivas USA will be Chivas USA - literally and, the league hopes, figuratively. The team is a ward of MLS for this season, league-owned until a new buyer is found. The buck has not just stopped, it has been shot between the eyes, strapped to the roof of the truck, and is being toted around the league as both trophy - who wants
venison a franchise in LA?! - and warning: failure will not be tolerated.
The Goats will eventually get a new owner, a new name, perhaps even a new stadium. For now, they have several new players and a spring in their step. Four points out of their opening three games of the season isn't spectacular, but we're talking about the club that lost its last five matches of 2013 by a combined score of 18-2.
RBNY also celebrates turning over a new leaf this year. We were the best team in the league last year, if not the best team in November (No, I am not tired of writing that - thanks for asking, though). No longer must every disappointing result be accompanied by a sinking feeling. Last year, the club proved it can win a trophy. For perhaps the first time in its existence, this team is now actively seeking to emulate itself: continuity is no longer a curse in New York.
Oddly, given their shared enthusiasm for the future, both clubs come into this match apparently dwelling on the past. Their records after three games (Chivas is 1-1-1; RBNY has two draws and a loss) are identical to their achievements after three matches in 2013. Same old, same old - the difference this year being neither team is bothered. Yet.
- There will be goals
Actually, given the way this match-up tends to deliver results that bear little relation to the overall form or prospects of either side, it is probably foolhardy to attempt to derive any predictions from their current form. Oh well, it's not the first time I've been a fool.
After a near-meaningless sample of three league games, this match is a clash of the joint-worst defenses in MLS. Each team has conceded six goals to date (tied with Montreal for the what-the-hell-is-happening-back-there league title).
So far, both clubs look considerably better at scoring goals than stopping them. For Chivas USA, Erick 'Cubo' Torres has scored three times in three games and Mauro Rosales has three assists. These Goats have goals in them.
As do the Red Bulls. Despite laboring under the delusion that possession statistics have some currency in the league standings, RBNY has occasionally deigned to stop treating every match as an extended meditation on passing and kicked the ball into the net. Only once per game, but at least the team has demonstrated some understanding of soccer's very simple objective: score goals; preferably, more than the other guys.
Both teams have scored and conceded in every league match they've played in 2014. Knowing their tendencies, that will combine for a tedious, ambitionless 0-0 - but we have reason to hope for something better.
What we don't know:
- RBNY's starting lineup
Is this the match for which Mike Petke finally throws Peguy Luyindula the keys to midfield? That's the biggest question surrounding the starting lineup for Sunday. The last time we saw RBNY rain goals on an opponent at the Arena was October 2013, when Luyindula took on an attacking central midfield role behind Tim Cahill and Thierry Henry. The last time we saw RBNY score more than one goal in a competitive match was the very next game - the 2-2 draw in the first leg of our ill-fated playoff series with Houston - and we haven't seen Peguy start in midfield or multiple goals in MLS play from New York since.
Petke clearly sees better options in training, but they haven't transferred well to match days. RBNY also hasn't won a competitive game since Peguy last started in midfield.
That is probably coincidence. And there are questions about the starters all over the field. Will Mike stick with Richard Eckersley at right back? Probably - it would be odd to have watched him get better over three games just to shut him down now. Armando or Ibrahim Sekagya next to Jamison Olave in the middle of defense? Is it Jonny Steele or Bobby Convey starting in left midfield? Likely Steele, but that seems to be a more open competition in Petke's eyes than we may have suspected coming into this season. Is Bradley Wright-Phillips going to partner Henry up top, or will RBNY persist with using Cahill as a forward - and if that is the case, why not Luyindula making the passes behind him? Look at that - we're back where we started.
- What is RBNY's plan B?
We don't really know what plan A is yet (see above), so it's probably expecting too much to want a sense of how the team thinks it will attack a game if the opening gambit doesn't work. Petke clearly wants his side to control the game by controlling the ball, but the evidence of the last few matches is the correlation between possession and winning is not as clear-cut as some coaching manuals suggest.
Can we play a faster-breaking, direct, counter-attacking style when we must? Is there more to this squad than simply shuffling different players around a 4-4-2? Do we even need a plan B?
- Will there still be 22 players on the pitch at the final whistle?
The Goats have accumulated 10 yellow cards and one red in their opening three games. The Red Bulls counter that record with nine yellows and two penalties conceded through 270 minutes of MLS 2014. Collectively, that's an average of a card every 13.5 minutes, or three per half. Brace yourself, this one could be kinda chippy.
If all goes according to current form, this will be a card-filled goal-fest. And if all goes according to the usual form exhibited by these teams when they play each other, this match will be the exception that proves the rule of whatever narrative ultimately describes their respective seasons.